Century-old law set state for archaeological preservation
DAYTON, Ohio » Tomorrow marks the centennial anniversary of President Theodore Roosevelt's signing of the Antiquities Act. The legislation's modest two-page length belies the remarkable impact it has had on this country and our ability to preserve history.
The Antiquities Act was the culmination of nearly a generation of work by dedicated professionals concerned about the increasing acts of vandalism and what was termed "pot hunting" of prominent archaeological ruins. There also was an increasing amount of scholarly interest in historic sites and archaeology. Several earlier legislative attempts to address these issues had failed.
That all changed when Theodore Roosevelt became president. What has been called the greatest single act of land preservation in U.S. history neatly fit the "Progressive" political ideals that were emerging at the turn of the century.
PRIOR TO the Antiquities Act, a few historically significant sites had been protected, but there was no national agenda for historic preservation. The Antiquities Act gave the president broad discretionary powers to create national monuments and, for the first time, provided a scientific basis for nature preservation.
There were many other significant achievements that resulted from the act. Notably, it provided the foundation for the growth of new professions such as archaeology, historic preservation and nature conservation. The Antiquities Act would later prove to be the direct ancestor of the Historic Sites Act of 1935 and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (a monumentally important legislative achievement now celebrating its 40th anniversary).
It would be difficult to overstate the impact the Antiquities Act had not only on historic preservation, but also the future of American archaeology and nature conservation. As disciplines, historic preservation, archaeology and nature conservation were all in their infancy 100 years ago. Prior to the Antiquities Act, there was no legal or public policy foundation for public archaeology in the United States, nor was there any precedent for public agencies to be involved in the preservation of historic places and structures.
EQUALLY IMPORTANT, the act established a scientific basis for preserving natural resources. Today's iconic national monuments -- the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Jackson Hole, for example -- were not simply preserved as "natural wonders," but for what we can learn from their ecological significance.
There is scant evidence that our founding fathers envisioned anything resembling national parks or monuments. But anyone who has visited a national or state park, patronized a historic site or even toured a modern museum likely can trace the public value of these important places to the Antiquities Act of 100 years ago.
OF COURSE, no landmark public policy is without its share of controversy. Assimilationist policies toward Native Americans were the norm a century ago. Seen from this perspective, the Antiquities Act has prevented American Indians from maintaining an exclusive control of their past, even while preserving those material remnants of America's past cultures.
What cannot be disputed today is that these historically significant sites also are modern economic resources for travel and tourism, drawing the increasingly important cultural heritage tourists -- those who travel to experience the authentic history of an area. These cultural heritage tourists stay 4.7 nights longer than the average tourist and spend 78 percent more in restaurants than other travelers, according to a study.
Ohio likely has only scratched the surface of the potential it holds for heritage tourism. The Dayton area alone has history and archaeological sites in abundance. With resources as diverse as the Underground Railroad and the Wright Brothers' origins to Fort Ancient and SunWatch Indian Village, the Dayton area remains a vital center of innovation and cultural heritage.
The Antiquities Act, a century later, is worth remembering to remind us that the United States' historic and natural places are finite resources that help future generations better connect with the past in order to understand the present and create a better future.
Todd Kleismit, a Dayton, Ohio, native, is the director of government relations for the Ohio Historical Society.